For the Order of Malta, the spirit of pilgrimage dates from its foundation in the 11th Century; in its hospital in Jerusalem ailing pilgrims were cared for, as well as all who needed help. For centuries the Order has run hostels and first aid posts all over Europe to offer shelter and food to pilgrims. Allied to this is its mission to care for the poor and the sick. Order pilgrimages always include accompanying the sick, a sharing of love and care. It is a mission which distinguishes every pilgrimage. It is a life-giving experience.
Every year, members of the Order make pilgrimages to Catholic shrines around the world, together with their sick and handicapped guests.
This most famous of all Marian shrines celebrates the appearance of the Virgin to Bernadette, a 14 year old peasant girl, in a grotto in Lourdes, in the mountainous region of the Pyrenees. In 1858 Bernadette was directed to expose a spring in the rocky ground, which brought forth pure water and was found to have healing properties. The site has witnessed many miracles since then.
Some of the Order of Malta’s National Associations had organised pilgrimages to Lourdes earlier than 1958, but then, on the occasion of the centenary of the Apparitions in 1958, an International Pilgrimage of the Order was organised. Since that time, at the beginning of May each year, the Order of Malta has made an annual international pilgrimage to Lourdes, led by the Grand Master, with members and volunteers from 45 countries on the six continents who participate in the pilgrimage, bringing thousands of sick and wheelchair pilgrims.
Holy Land: Jerusalem
The world’s most famous pilgrimage is to the Holy Land. From time to time, the Order organises an international pilgrimage of members, volunteers, helpers and handicapped guests. Jerusalem, central to the Christian faith, has also a special significance for the Order, as it was where Blessed Gerard founded the Order over 900 years ago. The next pilgrimage to the Holy Land will take place during the second week of November 2020. The Order of Malta’s last historic gathering in the Holy Land was in October 2007, when 1,400 pilgrims coming from 20 countries visited Nazareth, Bethlehem and the Sea of Galilee.
The Shrine of Our Lady of Mariazell, Styria, a pilgrimage site for 850 years, is the most visited Marian shrine in central Europe. Founded in 1157 by the Benedictine monks of St. Lambrecht’s Abbey, it houses the 12th-century limewood statue of the Virgin Mary in the Gnaden Church. Every year the Grand Priory of Austria, with over 300 members of the Order, volunteers and guests, makes a pilgrimage to the site.
Bosnia Herzegovina: Medjugorje
In 1981 it is believed that the Virgin appeared to six Herzegovinian children, with the message to pray for the sick. Although not an official shrine recognised by the Vatican, the site attracts thousands of pilgrims every year. Responding to the needs of the pilgrims, Malteser Hilfsdienst the Order of Malta’s auxiliary organisation in Germany runs a first aid post there.
Every July since 1970, Malteser Hilfsdienst has taken a pilgrimage, drawn from all Bavarian dioceses, to the Black Madonna in the 13th century chapel in Altötting, Germany’s most significant shrine. In 1498 a small child, believed drowned, was brought back to life there. Numerous miracles have been credited to the site ever since.
The German Association has, for over 20 years, been taking pilgrims from the Cologne dioceses – members, volunteers, the sick – to the shrine where, in 1641 a simple man, Hendrick Busmann, heard a voice asking him to build a chapel on this spot to Mary, Comforter of the Afflicted (Consolatrix afflictorum).
A wooden statue of the Mater Dolorosa, a ‘Pietà’ dating from 1370, is housed in the 17th century chapel of St.Clemens, which was constructed especially to shelter it. The site has been a shrine for over 400 years, since the procession was first ordered by Bishop Galen in 1651. Pilgrims come from the diocese of Munster, making the 45km walk from Osnabrück to Telgte and every year Malteser Hilfsdienst provides a first aid service for them.
Great Britain: Walsingham
Walsingham, north Norfolk, has been a place of pilgrimage since medieval times, when travel to Rome or Compostela was almost impossible. The knights of St.John have for centuries managed the hostels en route. According to tradition, in 1061 the Virgin Mary appeared three times to the lady of Walsingham Manor. She felt as though transported to the house in Nazareth where Mary was told that she was to have a son. A wooden replica of the ‘Holy House’ was built as a shrine to Our Lady of Walsingham. The British Association of the Order has brought sick pilgrims there every September for over 60 years.
Mátra, one of the most beautiful pilgrimage sites in Central and Eastern Europe, is the Catholic National Shrine of Hungary. Mátraverebély-Szentkút dates from 1091 and comes from the legend of King St László’s survival at a spring. In 1201 a commemorative church was built in the village of Mátraverebély, near to the spring. Operated by Franciscan monks, the site has been hosting pilgrims for nearly 800 years from both Hungary and the surrounding countries. The Hungarian Association has an annual pilgrimage there.
Knock is Ireland’s national Marian Shrine: in August 1879, Our Lady, St.Joseph and St.John the Evangelist appeared at the south gable of Knock Parish Church. There were 15 witnesses, both young and old. From this miraculous apparition Knock has grown to become an internationally recognised Marian Shrine. The Irish Association of the Order organises a pilgrimage to Knock every August, with the participation of members of the Order’s Ambulance Corps with elderly and disabled guests.
Ireland: Croagh Patrick
Renowned for its Patrician Pilgrimage in honour of St.Patrick, Ireland’s patron saint, Croagh Patrick has been a pilgrimage site for over 1,500 years, since St.Patrick fasted on the mountain for forty days in 441 AD. Many pilgrims climb the mountain barefoot. The Order of Malta Irish Ambulance Corps has been providing a first aid service for the pilgrims en route since 1943.
In celebration of Mary’s feast day of 8 September, the Order’s Italian members make an annual pilgrimage to Assisi. The procession goes to the Basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli, where an important copy of the icon of Our Lady of Philermo is housed, having been brought there by Franciscans after the second world war.
Since medieval times, the Holy House at Loreto is believed to be the home where the Virgin Mary lived and raised the young Jesus. In 1469 a large basilica was built around the small shrine, and the sacred site attracts four million pilgrims and visitors each year. Every October, the three Italian Grand Priories make a pilgrimage there, led by the Grand Master, with members, volunteers, sick and handicapped guests.
The annual pilgrimage of the sick, in which the Order’s Mexican Association participates, goes to the National Basilica of Guadalupe, which commemorates the 1531 visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary to St. Juan Diego. The pilgrims, numbering between 10,000 and 12,000, come from all over Mexico, with the wheel-chair users transported in special buses, with many of them escorted by members of the Order and their volunteers. Ambulances, medical services, first aid and trained personnel are in attendance throughout.
The shrine of Our Lady of Czestochowa, in the Monastery of Jasna Góra, is extremely important in the spiritual life of all Poles. It houses the miraculous icon of the Black Madonna, said to have been painted by St.Paul, and safely guarded throughout a troubled history. Every year in May the Polish Association of the Order organises a pilgrimage to the shrine.
Fátima is the site of the most important Marian apparitions in Portugal, when Mary appeared to three shepherd children in 1917. The pilgrimage route covers a distance of 130 km and Order of Malta members and volunteers provide a first aid service at the six main stopping points. The Order of Malta Portuguese Volunteer Corps have offered assistance since 1976.
Spain: Santiago de Compostela
The pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela is different from all other pilgrimages: it is the journey itself (the ‘camino’), not the arrival, that is most important. The tomb of the Apostle James the Great was discovered in Santiago early in the 9th century and has been a site of pilgrimage from then onwards. Since the Order arrived in Spain in the 11th century, its link to Santiago de Compostela and the ‘camino’ has been very important. The length of the ‘camino’ is full of hostels, hospitals, and churches founded by the Order to attend to the pilgrims. Still today the Order’s Spanish Association runs the hostel of Cizur Menor in Pamplona, and the hostel of Villalcazar de Sirga in Palencia, which have been adapted to receive pilgrims in wheelchairs. In an agreement with the Archbishopric of Santiago de Compostela, the Order of Malta has been running the relief post at the final stage of the ‘camino’ for 20 years.
USA: Our Lady of Good Help
The Shrine of Our Lady of Good Help is the site of the only Marian apparition in the United States approved by the Catholic Church (since 2010), where in 1859 Our Lady appeared to Adele Brise, a young Belgian woman, and urged her to pray and offer Holy Communion for the conversion of sinners. The three Order of Malta Associations in the United States travel to Wisconsin each year on pilgrimage to the shrine.
There are many other pilgrimages to shrines in their countries which are organised by Associations of the Order, or in which they take part:
Argentina: Our Lady of Luján; Romania: Shrine of Mary Comforter of the Afflicted, Sumuleu Ciuc, Transylvania; Slovakia: Shrine of Our Lady of Litmanová; Slovenia: Basilica of Mary Help of Christians in Brezje; Lithuania: Our Lady of Siluva.